Summer Camp Lessons for Life

During my summers at camp in Maine, I learned all the usual things, such as how to do the backstroke and how to climb back into an overturned canoe. I learned to shoot a bow and arrow and grout the tiles in an ashtray. I learned to use a compass, build a fire, and dig a latrine. I learned a new level of humiliation by crashing my sailboat into an opponent’s during the camp regatta. While I no longer grout ashtrays, dig latrines, or sail in regattas, seven of the lessons from summer camp have kept their value throughout the decades.

Lesson One: If you win praise, some folks won’t be happy.

I arrived at camp the first summer determined to master all the camp activities in eight weeks. I was eleven and didn’t have much skill with which to begin, especially in swimming. When I was tested the first day, I closed my eyes, jumped into the lake, and swam in circles while the counselors hollered at me to stop.

By the end of week six, I still wasn’t out of the beginners’ area, but I could swim in a straight line. The counselors awarded me a swimming “badge” for my effort. I came back from breakfast one morning to find the decal had been added to the others on the green felt banner over my bed.

That same morning, I heard my cabinmate Samantha complaining about what a goody-goody I was. She hadn’t received her swimming badge yet, even though she was one of the best swimmers in the entire intermediate unit. The next day during cabin cleanup, Samantha grabbed my tennis racket and hit me over the head with it. Just before rest period after lunch, she hid my toothbrush, my jacks and ball, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and my regulation green bathing suit. After supper, Samantha and two of her friends chased me around the outside of the infirmary building. When I managed to escape and hide in the shower house, I heard them call me a witch as they passed by.

The following morning after breakfast, Samantha had a swimming badge on her banner. We learned she should have gotten it the day I received mine, but there had been a mix-up. Over the course of the day, my toothbrush, jacks and ball, book, and bathing suit reappeared on my bed.

Lesson Two: If you’re really good at something, people will pay attention to you.

During my first year at camp, I was not very good at tennis or canoeing, but I could beat everyone at jacks. I knew fifteen fancies, like “Pigs in the Blanket” and “Around the World,” and I could remove a single jack from a tangled pile without disturbing the rest. I won both jacks tournaments that summer and was considered one of the camp’s all-time best.

Being tops at jacks did not bring me lots of friends, but practically everyone wanted to play jacks with me. Even if most girls were just attracted by the chance to beat me, I didn’t mind. I never had to play jacks alone.

Lesson Three: Events with the boys’ camp won’t live up to expectations.

One Friday night during the summer when I was twelve, we older intermediate girls put on our Sunday uniforms and traveled by open truck to watch a movie at our brother camp a few miles down the lake. Missy, Laura, and Samantha—the first, second, and third most popular girls in our unit—wore pink lipstick and rubbed some of it into their cheeks. We all curled our hair.

The movie turned out to be a western. The boys sat in the back of their lodge, while we girls sat in front. I barely even caught sight of a boy.

The following summer we were old enough for dances. Truckloads of boys were deposited at our lodge, or we were trucked to theirs. The counselors teamed up for bush patrol. Each year there seemed to be exactly three cute boys, one each for Missy, Laura, and Samantha. I liked it best when the dances were held at our camp because I could sneak back to my cabin and read a book by flashlight. The year I was fourteen, my best friend, Louise, and I survived two dances by hiding in the woods and discussing the Beatles.

When I was fifteen, I did actually spend a dance with a boy, but I found him highly uninteresting. After the last slow song he kissed me, my first kiss.

Lesson Four: Some of the folks in charge simply won’t like you.

All of my cabin counselors were lovely and kind young women, except for Betsy. Betsy let me know I had no hope of ever being popular like Missy, Laura, and Samantha. Therefore she found me boring and not worth her attention. Betsy had been a camper before she was a counselor. I figured she had been just like Samantha. Betsy told me about my flat singing, mousy hair, and feeble tennis strokes. Once when I had such a bad sunburn that my back blistered, Betsy was annoyed because I groaned in my sleep and disturbed her rest.

Each summer on the second-to-last night of camp, we had a special banquet. The counselors decorated the lodge with pine boughs and candles and danced and sang songs they had made up about the summer. When I saw Betsy up there singing about Sports Day and the Fourth of July and all the other now-past times, I started to cry a little. Maybe I was going to miss Betsy. Maybe she was not such a bad counselor after all. Maybe with more time we could have been friends.

When we went back to the cabin after the banquet, Betsy hollered at me for accidentally banging into her foot locker.

Lesson Five: Yes, there can be too much of a good thing.

Every Wednesday evening, we had a cookout and ate hamburgers and hotdogs, with watermelon for dessert. On Sunday nights, if we turned in a letter home, we were given Italian sandwiches, and watermelon for dessert. For the first three summers, I ate two or three pieces of watermelon each Wednesday and Sunday. By the fifth summer, I passed up the watermelon entirely.

I didn’t grow tired of the ice cream we had at noon on Sundays, or of canoeing or sailing a boat, but overnight camping trips suffered the same fate as the watermelon. My first year I was allowed to go on an overnight to a small pine-covered point of land directly across the mile-wide lake from the camp. I was as happy as an adult on a ten-day cruise. When I looked up from my warm sleeping bag, all the stars in the Universe shone out there in front of me, with the Milky Way a nearly solid band of white. The donut holes and French toast we cooked over the fire for breakfast were, to my mind, among the best things I’d ever eaten.

Four years later, I was an experienced camper. As a reward I was scheduled to go on seven trips, most of them for three or four days at a time. That summer was unusually rainy. Between some outings, my sneakers didn’t even have time to dry out. My life was cold rain, dirt, and bugs. I learned about the impossibility of feeling warm and dry sleeping in a tent during a storm, no matter how diligently we had dug the trenches. The buzz of mosquitoes and black flies mingled with the sound of rain hitting canvas.

Lesson Six: Simple pleasures are enduring pleasures.

Right from the first night of camp, I loved singing all the songs. We sang at every meal, during evening program, on trips, and around the campfire. We tried harmony to “Witchcraft” and “Seven Daffodils.” We shouted out the happy songs, especially while we bumped along the Maine roads in the back of a truck. I still remember the words to our favorites.

On Sundays we could sleep half an hour extra. After breakfast, we were free until service in the pine grove at eleven. Counselors, counselors-in-training, and campers from the three units took turns presenting the service. Even when I was just an intermediate camper, I always felt peaceful in the pine grove. I’d lean back on my elbows against the steep hillside and look up to the very tops of the trees, where the green branches began. The sound of guitars and singing spread through the otherwise silent grove and over the empty cabins and quiet lake below. The motorboats didn’t appear until afternoon. As I listened to the music, my fingers played with the long, thick red-pine needles and the neat little five-needle bundles from the white pines.

After grove service, we were free until lunch, which always included chicken with cranberry sauce and mustard pickles. After rest hour we were on our own again until supper. The only activity scheduled was a free swim at four. As I grew older, I used all the glorious spare time in different ways. The first two years I spent most of every Sunday playing jacks. Other summers I followed my secret path along the lake to a huge flat rock in a clearing hidden from view at camp. I could read all afternoon. Some Sundays, Louise and I looked for frogs or four-leaf clovers while we discussed religion, philosophy, and rock ’n roll stars.

During the cold Maine nights—especially in August, when the first leaves started turning red—I slept under seven blankets and left my bathrobe on for a little extra warmth. The seven blankets served a second purpose. They created a tent under which I could read after “Taps” without being discovered. The dimmer my flashlight, the cozier I was. I read Little Women under the blankets my second summer at camp. I’d already read it three or four times before, but Jo and her sisters were a comforting contrast to Missy, Laura, and Samantha.

Lesson Seven: If you’re in charge, you have to act as if you know what you’re doing.

While I was a camper and counselor-in-training, someone else was always in charge. When I became a counselor, I had trouble with the fact I was the one who was supposed to know just what to do.

On one camping trip with a dozen eight- and nine-year-olds, we ran out of firewood. Sarah, the other counselor on the trip, had never used an ax. She and the little girls followed me into the woods to watch me fell a small tree.

When a thunderstorm broke while I was on top of a mountain with eight junior campers, I wondered whether my counselors had ever felt as nervous as I did listening to the thunder coming closer.

One night about an hour after “Taps,” another counselor, Trudy, and I heard screaming and running feet as we walked near our duplex cabin. Cabin Four was hers, Cabin Three mine. A bat was flying around inside. While Trudy and I were giving the girls a “bats are our friends” talk, the bat flew at Trudy, who screamed and ran out the door. I never did coax the bat to leave, but eventually he settled down and so did the girls. For the rest of the summer, he spent his days hanging upside down from a beam in the Cabin Three ceiling. If you’re in charge, you can’t complain about what lives over your bed.